Both sides share blame in union demonization

The demonization of unions, specifically public sector ones, has been one of the most divisive, disingenuous though albeit effective efforts by political partisans in the last 50 years.

#The Republican Party, the hard-right faction of it, began to formulate its modern message based not just on union attacks but also social issues and conservative fiscal practices way back in the 1960s in response to “The Great Society” plan of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

#For the better part of the next 15 years as industry declined in the northern half of the country, as manufacturing jobs left the “Rust Belt” for the “Sun Belt” then entirely out of the United States, Republicans seized on these moves as an example of union influence run amuck.

#To a very large extent, they were correct. The intransigence of private sector unions helped provoke companies, giving them the political cover to shift their plants where cost-of-living costs were much lower. By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s campaign had so instilled this notion into the psyche of voters he transformed many of the “lunch pail” labor force into the so-called “Reagan Democrats” and had also cemented the “Solid South” in his party’s favor.

#Having accomplished its goal of undoing over 75 years of gains for middle-class families and blue-collar workers by unions, perks most if not all non-union employees also benefited from, the Right turned its attention to the public sector versions. Reagan broke the air traffic controllers. His arch-Conservative allies, especially, vilified academia, creating a residue of resentment against the National Education Association union, that still inflames the discourse of local, state and national politics.

#Unions backed by the Democratic Party, particularly the leadership of each, are culpable as well. In many instances, they’ve fought reasonable compromise that in the long run would have helped their constituencies and the tax payer alike. Public sector unions, which until recently often the beneficiaries of very favorable contract terms, displayed little humility as their private-sector counterparts saw their healthcare benefits slashed, co-pays explode and their retirements diminish if not completely disappear.

#Ultimately, just like almost every problem this country faces, fault can be found with those on both sides of the issue.

#However, not recognizing the important positive impact of unions on the American workforce is a misreading of history. And not recognizing the role the demonization of unions has played in the dysfunction of America, its governance and, notably during election season, its politics, is a misunderstanding of current events.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.